24 MARCH 1967, Page 3

A changing constitution


'The Labour Government,' said Ramsay Mac- Donald in 1924, 'will go out if it be defeated upon substantial issues, issues of principle, issues that really matter. It will go out if the responsible leaders of either party or any party move a direct vote of no confidence, and carry that vote.' Eight years later Stanley Baldwin was to put a similar proposition. 'You will find in the time of . .. William Pitt,' said Baldwin, 'that he never thought of resigning office if legislation introduced by his-Government into Parliament failed to pass. Was his position at that time constitutional? These,' concluded Baldwin in typical fashion, 'are difficult questions to answer.'

The circumstances in which both these state- ments were made are admittedly very different from those obtaining today. MacDonald was speaking as head of a minority government.

Baldwin's remarks were by way of illustration of the proposition that nothing that was in practice done could be unconstitutional. (He was speaking of the 'agreement to differ whereby four ministers were permitted to oppose the then Cabinet's imposition of a 10 per cent tariff.) And yet, though the present Government has a majority of ninety-two, though it is not—ostensibly at any rate—a national Government, both these observations are not without relevance today. Once again it needs to be asked whether a Government should resign merely because it is defeated in the House of Commons.

It needs to be asked because, I believe, most of the current discussion about parliamentary reform and the rights of back-benchers and discipline in the Labour party has avoided the crucial question: whether, in the last resort, the will of the Government is to prevail. Though the question is avoided, the answer is implied. The answer is Yes. For example, the conven- tional justification for specialist committees is

simply that they will keep back-benchers 'bet- ter-informed,' as the phrase goes. In fact most

of the back-benchers whom I know are over- whelmed by a luxury of information. They hardly have time to keep up with Hansard and the daily press, let alone with the blue books and white papers.

But even if back-benchers did have the ability to extract, absorb and make use of a great deal of new information, specialist com- mittees would not in themselves provide a countervailing force to that of the Govern- ment. Knowledge is all very well, but it is me the same thing as power. The Estimates Com- mittee, for instance, has on many occasions seen its recommendations rejected or, more in- sultingly, completely ignored. Frequently noth- ing whatever has happened as a result of its deliberations. The same applies to the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries and the Committee of Public Accounts. There is no suggestion that the new committees should have any greater powers than the old ones. The only difference is that they will be mort. specialised.

Or take, again, the disciplinary reforms initiated by Mr Richard Crossman and Mr John Silkin. Abstention on matters of conscience is now a right, and Mr Emanuel Shinwell is there, or rather is not there, to prove it. Mr Crossman, for his part, says that it is all a matter of give and take, of live and let live; rather as if he were some kind of well-meaning but not particularly competent marriage guid- ance counsellor. When all the votes have been counted, he assumes, the Government will have won the division. Conscience, he takes it, is a commodity necessarily in short supply. It is inconceivable, he presumes, that as many as ninety-three Labour Members should all legitimately abstain at the same time and hence defeat the Government. His premise, and the premise of those who think like him, is that in the end the Government will have had its way. Indeed it will have had its way faster than it would otherwise have done: for at the basis of Mr Crossman's reforms is the notion of a bar- gain: the Government is to push its business through more quickly, while in return the back- benchers are to be given more liberty.

On the face of it this is an attractive enough idea. To speak one's mind in the House, occasionally to abstain in a division, to serve as a member of a specialist committee, perhaps, who knows? to have some influence on Government policy: surely this is as dignified and civilised an existence as any back-bencher can reasonably expect in this harsh world? And yet one wonders. One wonders because Mr Crossman, having diagnosed the trouble cor- rectly, has not worked out the remedy con- sistently. This is most untypical of Mr Cross- man. He generally gets the facts wrong and the logic right. On this occasion, however, he has perceived (and so, to be fair, has Mr Harold Wilson) that today's back-benchers have to be treated differently from their predecessors. They have to be given more freedom.

But freedom to do what? To oppose Govern- ment policy? Or to have a say in the making of that policy? Admittedly the two latter questions are not necessarily disjunctive. By threatening to oppose a given measure one can compel a modification of that measure. Never- theless, in British politics there exists a basic and fairly clear distinction between MPS who are members of the Government and hies who are not. (I say 'fairly clear' because there are certain ambiguities, notably in relation to the position of parliamentary private secretaries. Their freedom, as Mr Brian Walden can testify, depends largely on the whim of the minister concerned. Thus Mr Alfred Morris, as PPS to Mr Fred Peart, is allowed to make lengthy anti-Market speeches; whereas Mr Michael English, as PE's to Mr Douglas Jay, is not.)

Mr Crossman and other parliamentary re- formers, however, have not decided whether their object is to make back-benchers more free in their capacity as back-benchers or, on the other hand, to incorporate them—no one is sure precisely how—in the government machine. Nor is this lack of decision par- ticularly blameworthy or even surprising, for the back-benchers themselves have not properly made up their minds.

Of one thing we may be fairly sure. The in- stinct to oppose, as such, is a fairly rare one.

Few young back-benchers now think they would be content to spend the rest of their lives in the same humble situation. Individuals such as Mr Michael Foot and Mr Sydney Silver- man and Mr Leslie Hale are rare. Perhaps they are going out of fashion entirely. Most young Members see themselves as ministers—Mr Roy Jenkins is perhaps the model—leafing languidly through papers in the back seat of the Humber as it speeds noiselessly between the ministry in Whitehall and the television studio at White City. To them, parliamentary reform is a method of providing, not a check on, but an apprenticeship to the Executive. As one former minister put it: 'They are trying to get more out of the system than the system can possibly provide.'

Constitutional changes arise in response to real needs rather than in response to theories. Therefore we may expect the committee system to be extended in order to satisfy, even though in a slightly spurious fashion, the craving of back-benchers for some share in what they take to be the mysteries of government. But the danger is that the committees will operate not as a curb on government but as a convenient adjunct; as, among other things, a useful in- strument of patronage. There were tendencies of this kind evident in the setting-up of the new Agriculture Committee. Mr Fred Peart insisted on approving the membership; he stipulated that the annual price review should not be dis- cussed; and one young Scottish Member with a close interest in agriculture was initially omitted from the committee in retribution for once causing the Government difficulties.

It is in this context that we should see the Government's proposal for Lords of (some- times varied to 'Lords in') Parliament. This also could add to the powers of the Government and particularly of the Prime Minister. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Lord Goodman can spare enough time from his other activities to become Home Secretary. As such he appears occasionally in the House of Commons to make a speech or answer questions, returning after- wards to the House of Lords or to his ministry. His constituency cannot get rid of him, because he has none, and he cannot be controlled by the Commons. He is solely the Prime Minister's man.

I said earlier that constitutional changes arose in response to real needs. The danger of a statement of this kind is that any consti- tutional change is assumed to be inevitable: it is assumed to be made in response to a need, and hence to be good. Yet, as I have indicated, there are considerable risks to parliamentary freedom in some of the ideas being talked about. The solution is surely for the House of Commons to rely, not on the Government's ideas for reform, but on its own. It might try to defeat the Government from time to time. We need have no fear that Mr Wilson would resign as a result. He is much too fond of his job for that to happen.